April 24, 2018

Environment: Sheer Magnitude- Northwest- Oct. 2003

Joan Hughes | 10/1/2003
In 2000, when a trickle of St. Joe Co. projects in northwest Florida suddenly turned into a flood, regulatory agencies took notice. Particularly interested were the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state's Department of Environmental Protection, which are responsible for wetlands permitting in the region.

"We were concerned with the sheer magnitude of the permitting actions we were getting and the size of projects we were expecting," says Don Hambrick, senior project manager in the Jacksonville district of the Corps of Engineers. So in September 2000, the Corps initiated discussions with St. Joe and several state and federal regulatory agencies. The agenda: Improve communication and coordination on St. Joe's many permit applications.

After three years, the result is a pending Corps "regional general permit" covering 37,000 acres in Bay and Walton counties, including 28,000 of St. Joe land. The DEP plans to sign an "ecosystem management agreement" with St. Joe that also covers the company's 28,000 acres. Both agencies laud these steps as a major improvement in the region's wetlands management.

"This is one of the larger, if not the largest, wetlands permits that has to do with a geographic area that is this encompassing," says Hambrick, who noted that the permit is modeled after smaller Corps projects in south Florida. "This allowed us to take proactive action to control watershed impact."

The Corps permit evaluates development effects on an entire watershed area, allowing the agency to assess wetlands impact on a widespread, rather than piecemeal, basis. Within the permit area, road crossings will be the only impacts permitted in high-quality wetlands, and no more than 20% of low-quality wetlands may be developed. All impacted wetlands are to be mitigated, either within the permit area or in two designated off-site areas.

The plan also calls for more than 10,700 acres of fully protected conservation land -- all owned by St. Joe -- that create a greenway through the permit area and link with Bay County's West Bay Area Sector Plan conservation areas.

The public will review both the Corps permit and DEP agreement. The plans are expected to be implemented by year's end. The first St. Joe project in the permit area will be WaterSound North, a 2,000-acre, 1,500-unit residential and commercial development that was designed to comply with the pending regulations.

St. Joe's take on the permit and DEP agreement is nothing but positive. "It gave the agencies an opportunity to cherry-pick" the areas they wanted to conserve, says Dave Tillis, vice president of regulatory affairs for St. Joe, who believes that the area's wetlands quality will improve because of the plan. "And when we start identifying project development opportunities, everyone on our team will know what areas are off-limits. Everyone knows what to expect."


Carrabelle -- St. Joe bid $6.8 million for 48 acres of state-owned waterfront property on Timber Island -- the only bid the state received. The state, which set a minimum bid of $6.7 million, determined the land was not desirable for conservation.

Crawfordville -- Responding to local outcry against urban sprawl, the Wakulla County Commission voted against changing its comprehensive plan to accommodate a proposed 606-acre "sustainable community" development that would have been the second-largest development in the county with about 1,000 homes, 250 apartments and some commercial space. But at the request of one commissioner, the board later rescinded its vote and said it will reconsider the issue this month.

Destin -- Okaloosa County is partnering with Destin Airport's fixed base operator, Miracle Strip Aviation, to build a terminal better suited to the high-end private jet traffic frequenting the seaside airport. Developer Jay Odom has bid to become the airport's second fixed base operator and plans to build a second maintenance hangar.

Nashville-based Gaylord Entertainment will pay $177 million for ResortQuest International (NYSE-RZT), the nation's largest vacation rental property management company, which recently moved its headquarters to Destin.

Leon County -- After a year of heated debate, the County Commission voted to create a county-run Emergency Medical Services department to take over EMS operations from Tallahassee Memorial Hospital by January 2004, rather than expand the responsibilities of the Tallahassee Fire Department.

Milton -- The newly renovated Santa Rosa Correctional Institute, one of four state prisons designated as "close custody" facilities, has increased its guard staff by 140 and plans to add 70 more guards. In August, the Legislature approved construction of a $27.5-million, 1,380-bed prison annex that will provide hundreds more jobs.

Panhandle -- July brought record passenger traffic to two regional airports. Pensacola Regional Airport attributed its jump to 136,637 passengers to AirTran's presence. Tallahassee Regional Airport says the Legislature's special sessions boosted its traffic 9% to 97,067 passengers.

Pensacola -- Capitalizing on its relationship with West Florida Historic Preservation and Historic Pensacola Village, the University of West Florida will offer a master's degree in historic preservation beginning this fall.

Pensacola Beach -- The second phase of a five-phase, $50-million Surf and Sand Development project has been completed with the opening of the Soundside Center shopping complex last month. Plans include a waterfront restaurant, 272-room hotel and deep-water pier.

Tallahassee -- Florida State University College of Medicine has established a department of geriatrics, one of only four in the country and the first in Florida, requiring a fourth-year geriatrics rotation and integrating geriatric issues in regular courses. The state ranks 44th in the number of certified geriatricians per elderly residents.

The state has purchased 501 acres along the Apalachicola River known as Aspalaga Landing from The Nature Conservancy, which had acquired the land from the St. Joe Timberland Co. last year, and hopes to eventually connect the site with Torreya State Park through future acquisitions.

Walton County -- Demand for its services has prompted Sacred Heart Hospital on the Emerald Coast to begin a $2.2-million expansion and to add staff, which has already increased 50% to more than 300, just six months after opening.


PBS this month is airing a documentary titled "Water's Journey -- Hidden Rivers of Florida." The film uses new technology to trace the relationship between cave systems and society's activities above. Divers follow Florida's water supply beneath homes, farms and wastewater treatment facilities, examining the effects of agriculture, lawn maintenance and runoff on the quality of water and offering solutions for ground water protection.

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